The NFL playoff picture is complete in the AFC with only one week of the regular-season yet to play. All six teams are set, and none can even do as much as improve or harm their seeding in Week 17.
One of these six teams are guaranteed to represent the conference in February’s Super Bowl, but some appear to have better chances of getting there than others. Here are pros and cons — arguments for and against — for why each of these six teams has championship potential.
1. New England Patriots (13-2)
There is no quarterback-head coach tandem currently in the NFL with more playoff and more Super Bowl experience than the New England Patriots’ duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, which already gives the AFC’s No. 1 seed an incredible advantage in this year’s playoffs, no matter where the games take place.
But as the No. 1 seed, the AFC path to the Super Bowl seems almost guaranteed to roll through Foxboro, a place where the Patriots have lost in the postseason literally just a handful of times in 33 playoff appearances with Belichick and Brady. And with a 13-2 record, the best in the conference and at 10-1 in AFC intra-conference play, this is a juggernaut no one likely wants to see in January.
The Patriots are also playing high-level, well-rounded football — traits that often define Super Bowl champions. Brady has thrown only two interceptions in 399 pass attempts (to 25 touchdowns). Meanwhile, the Patriots also have a top-10 run game behind back LeGarrette Blount, who already has 1,110 rushing yards and 17 rushing scores with one regular-season game to play.
Not to be outdone by their humming offense, the Patriots’ defense is currently ranking first in points allowed and eighth in yards. Their six run scores allowed are the fewest in the league, while the pass defense has given up only seven touchdowns, while notching 12 interceptions and 34 sacks.
Ultimately, the on-paper numbers seem to point to the Patriots being the AFC’s truly unstoppable squad.
There aren’t many drawbacks to the Patriots’ performances this year. In fact, the very obviousness of the Patriots’ chances to win it all, yet again, might be the only argument against them, and it’s a very metaphysical one at that.
Rust, due to a bye week? That didn’t seem to affect Brady at all following his four-week suspension that opened the season. The intimidation factor? The Patriots have played three of the other five playoff teams already this year, winning all three. At this point, only the “any given Sunday” nature of the sport could be the only true argument against the Patriots’ odds.
2. Oakland Raiders (12-3)
— Juan Anaya (@INSANE_MERC) December 7, 2016
This has been a magical season for the Oakland Raiders, who are back atop the AFC West and are making their first playoff appearance since 2002. They have a bye week to rest up for whoever their Divisional Round opponent may be, their offense ranks in the top 10 in every major statistical category and the defense has totaled 25 sacks so far, with 18 of those via the combined efforts of defensive end Khalil Mack and linebacker Bruce Irvin. But there’s now a major roadblock to the Raiders’ Cinderella Season, and it’s the biggest argument against this team reaching the Super Bowl in Houston.
— PJ (@oakposts) December 25, 2016
Through 15 games, third-year quarterback Derek Carr has been excellent. He’s completed 63.7 percent of his passes, for 3,933 yards and has thrown 28 touchdowns to six interceptions. Behind a criminally underrated offensive line, he’s been sacked only 16 times. The problem? Carr’s season may already be over, having suffered a broken fibula in Week 16’s win over the Indianapolis Colts, the only time he was touched in the game.
The good news for backup Matt McGloin, to whom this offense belongs for at least the time being, is that he will be protected by that very same line. The bad news, though, is that he had only four pass attempts after Carr went out with injury and since 2013, he has appeared in only 13 games with six starts (and a 1-5 record in those matchups).
McGloin also has the benefit of a bye week to help get him on the same page as star Raiders receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. But there’s no question that McGloin is a significant step down from Carr, a fact that hurts Oakland’s offense. And when the offense is hurting, that puts extra pressure on the defense.
While Mack and Irvin have been stellar this season, the secondary has struggled. Oakland’s defense has allowed a 25th-ranked 3,914 passing yards and a 21st-ranked 25 passing touchdowns. Without Carr’s leadership keeping Oakland afloat, it’s hard to see this defense shutting down the likes of New England’s or Pittsburgh’s offense in order to steer them toward the wins necessary to get to the Super Bowl. But then again: Carr’s six-to-eight week timetable for recovery puts him in position to make a return if Oakland can make it that far. His family certainly thinks such a thing is possible.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5)
Le'Veon Bell will not be stopped. https://t.co/AyAbjX8hA9
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) December 25, 2016
The Pittsburgh Steelers clinched the AFC North in a thrilling, last-second defeat of longstanding rivals, the Baltimore Ravens, in Week 16. That ability to finish when the pressure is high is but one reason why the Steelers are among the most intimidating of the AFC’s playoff picture.
The other, of course, is the offense. Led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell, the unit ranks 12th in points, seventh in yards and only ninth in turnovers. Though Bell missed the first three games of the season, he already has 1,884 yards from scrimmage (1,268 rushing, on 261 attempts and 616 receiving, on 75 catches). Brown is up to 1,284 yards and 12 scores (including the game-winner over Balitmore) — otherwise known as 12 of Roethlisberger’s 29 passing touchdowns this year.
Further, there may be no team less overwhelmed by the pressures of the postseason outside of the Patriots. Roethlisberger has been to the playoffs eight times, including three Super Bowls (and two wins), while head coach Mike Tomlin has been at the helm of postseason squads six times.
The defense, not to be outdone by the offense, has continued to improve as the year has progressed, mostly because its younger players are becoming more comfortable on the field. It continues to generate turnovers every week, has 34 sacks on the year and is top-10 in points and yards allowed, as well as rushing yards and passing touchdowns. The Steelers also start out their playoff stand at home in Heinz Field this year, a place where they have lost only twice in 2016.
The question of health is among the biggest for Pittsburgh. Luckily, the team has nothing further to play for, which will likely lead to Roethlisberger, Bell, Brown and other key starters resting in Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that their high-impact members of their starting lineup, on both sides of the ball, have to maintain their health all the way through early February, beginning in the Wild Card Round against the Miami Dolphins and their not-to-be-taken-lightly defense, in particular.
The Steelers also need to stay motivated. If they, as a group, underestimate the Dolphins, Houston Texans or Carr-less Raiders, they could find themselves in trouble. The Tomlin years may be marked with thrilling wins and deep postseason runs, but they have also been plagued by bouts of the team “playing down” to opponents they believe are “beneath them.” Doing so over the next month could lead to disaster.
The Steelers also need to finish drives with touchdowns in these crucial upcoming games. Though the Steelers rank ninth in points, they still are only converting 56.52 percent of their red-zone appearances into touchdowns, a number that drops to 43.48 percent on the road. That kind of scoring production will not do them any favors should they have to head to Foxboro in order to earn a chance for another Lombardi Trophy.
4. Houston Texans (9-6)
Tom Savage is in.
And Tom Savage is making plays. SWEET pass
The 2016 Houston Texans have the unenviable honor of being the best team in the AFC South, this year’s worst division in the NFL. But on the other hand, it is an enviable honor — after all, 10 of the AFC’s 16 teams will be spending the playoffs at home this year and would likely love to be in the Texans’ shoes.
Still, it’s hard to find much to the Texans’ season that points toward Houston hoisting the Lombardi in their home stadium in 2017. The $72 million man, quarterback Brock Osweiler, has been benched for Tom Savage, a fourth-round draft pick from 2014 who had his first career start (and first passes thrown in a regular-season game since his rookie year) in Week 16.
The good news is that not only did Savage bring the Texans back from a deficit against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 15, he also helped his team reach a two-point win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 16. He hasn’t been picked off yet, though he’s attempted only 65 passes. But he hasn’t thrown a passing score yet, and that’s something the Texans are going to need in order to advance in the postseason.
Though the Texans have been lacking on offense — particularly scoring, where they rank 29th in points — the defense has significantly assisted the whole team to the divisional title. The unit ranks 10th in the league in points allowed, second in passing yards and seventh in passing scores and middle-of-the-pack in defending the run.
This passing defense and the rushing offense (which ranks top-six in attempts and yards) will be necessary if the Texans are to reach the Super Bowl. The defense can keep opposing offenses off the field while the run game can be used to control the time of possession; this approach could give Houston a playoff win or two in a low-scoring manner.
An untested quarterback like Savage is not necessarily what a playoff team wants to have serve as starter at this point in the year, putting Houston very much in the same boat as the Raiders in the season’s waning days. But there are other signs of trouble that the Texans will have to turn around in short order if this team is to truly emerge as a contender and not just the AFC South placeholder.
Even though Houston’s defense is 10th in points allowed, the Texans have still been outscored this year, 262 to 304. The red zone is a major problem. Houston ranks only 31st in red-zone touchdown scoring percentage, at 39.02. Even worse is that it drops to 36 percent at home, compared to 43.75 percent on the road. The Texans have just a 27th-ranked per-game red zone average of 2.7, so the offense is both not getting into scoring position very often and not scoring touchdowns on the occasions that they do.
Thus, imagining this offense being able to match wits with the likes of Pittsburgh or New England is a significant stretch. Flaws will have to turn to strengths very quickly for Houston to be the NFL’s first team to play a Super Bowl on their home field.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)
TYREEK. HILL. TO. THE. HOUSE.
— NFL (@NFL) December 26, 2016
The Kansas City Chiefs have been remarkably even-keeled this season, with the team regularly a threat to score 20 or more points on any given week. Of their four losses, two have come against current playoff teams and two against teams that came close to reaching the postseason. Quarterback Alex Smith has been spreading the ball around; tight end Travis Kelce leads the way with 1,117 yards on 84 catches, but four other players have at least 400 receiving yards themselves.
This hasn’t been producing much touchdown production out of Smith, who has thrown 13 touchdowns to seven interceptions. That hasn’t proven to be much of a problem thanks to a Chiefs defense that is tops in the league in takeaways, and third in interceptions with 16. Cornerback Marcus Peters has five interceptions and three fumble recoveries, while safety Eric Berry has returned two of his four interceptions for touchdowns. The front is led by linebacker Dee Ford and his 10 sacks.
The Chiefs not-so-secret weapon is rookie receiver and emerging jack-of-all trades Tyreek Hill. Hill has rushed 21 times for 253 yards and three scores, has caught 56 passes on 76 targets for another 547 and six, respectively, and is the league leader in punt return yardage, where he has also scored (he has a kick return touchdown as well). Hill is becoming increasingly more difficult to defend and could be the man to give opposing defenses fits.
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) December 26, 2016
The low-scoring passing offense had better hope that Hill’s rise can help out that side of the ball’s overall efforts against offenses like Pittsburgh’s or even Oakland’s that are capable of scoring a lot of points. The Steelers and Raiders also have strong offensive lines that could make disrupting those quarterbacks a struggle. Thus, Kansas City needs to hope their turnover luck continues. Hill will also be crucial to the Chiefs’ special-teams efforts.
While Kansas City’s defense ranks in the top 10 in rushing scores, it’s 26th in yards allowed. Without forcing turnovers, it could spend a lot of time on the field against teams like Pittsburgh, Miami, New England and, in the Wild Card Round, Houston, who all have very strong run components to their offenses. But don’t let these criticisms fool you: The Chiefs are the sleeper team of the conference and should not be taken lightly.
6. Miami Dolphins (10-5)
Matt Moore : 12 of 18, 236 yards, 4 TD's, 1 INT & a 126.2 QB Rating
Kenny Stills : 52-yard TD catch (His only catch of the game) pic.twitter.com/bZF4DKInR7
— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life) December 18, 2016
Not since 2008 have the Miami Dolphins reached the playoffs. Before that, it was 2001, due to the Patriots’ dominance in the AFC East and the numerous struggles the Dolphins have faced. Front office and coaching changes and tension, quarterback after quarterback serving as starter — if the Cleveland Browns weren’t the Cleveland Browns, Miami would be viewed with a bit more pity.
But no more pity — not only do the Dolphins have 10 wins — also their first double-digit winning season since 2008 — but they possess serious strengths. Miami has lost only one game since Week 5 and the past three weeks (all wins) they’ve tallied 26 or more points.
A wrinkle, though: quarterback Ryan Tannehill has missed the last two games and may miss more with ACL and MCL sprains in his left knee, making Matt Moore the starter. The 32-year old has 27 starts since 2007, most recently 12 in 2011 for Miami. But his career completion rate of 58.9 and 39 touchdowns to 30 interceptions is not quite Tannehill’s 67.1 percentage. But Tannehill wasn’t necessarily the shining star under center all year long, with 19 touchdowns thrown to 12 interceptions.
The answer is running back Jay Ajayi, who has thrice this season surpassed the 200-rushing yard mark, including against the Steelers, the team’s Wild Card opponent. Well, almost. While Ajayi has had those three explosive performances, the six weeks before Week 16’s defeat of the Buffalo Bills saw him under 100 yards rushing each time.
Defense could also help mitigate the absence of Tannehill or a low Ajayi production. It has 16 interceptions so far this year as well as 33 sacks. There’s nothing fun about staring down Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake and Andre Branch.
.@JayTrain23 is a locomotive.
Despite a winning record, the Dolphins have benefited via a long stretch of schedule against teams eliminated from the playoffs. And they aren’t achieving those wins by a wide margin on a regular basis, having only outscoring opponents by just four points. Ten games this season, whether wins or losses, have been decided by a touchdown or less. Add in the loss of Tannehill and Ajayi’s inconsistent — yet explosive — production and going to Pittsburgh could be too much to handle on Wild Card weekend.
The Dolphins can put together a formula that works and that wins, as we have seen. And that doesn’t mean the team cannot catch Pittsburgh off guard. But to continue that momentum into places like Arrowhead or Foxboro may be difficult to sustain. Still, head coach Adam Gase was given just a three-year window to turn the Dolphins into a playoff team and he did it in his first try. Even if the green-to-the-postseason Miami goes one-and-done, Gase may finally end up being the coach this city has been searching for this century.